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San Clemente landslide leaves four houses on the brink

Hillside gives way, collapsing onto a golf course below. The homes are declared unsafe, and residents scramble to move belongings.

January 08, 2011|By Martha Groves, Los Angeles Times

Four houses overlooking a golf course in south Orange County were red-tagged Friday after the hillside behind them collapsed the previous night amid what residents described as "crackling and popping and snapping."

The slide created a 25- to 50-foot vertical drop beneath backyard patios and fences along the 200 block of Via Ballena in San Clemente. Residents hurried to move books, clothing, sofas and other belongings to driveways and frontyards or into hastily rented moving trucks.

City engineers "basically said the hillside is compromised so you just don't know when it will slide, and it's best to get your treasures to the front of the house," said Kelly Grush, whose family rented one of the homes for $3,000 a month. With the house now tagged as unsafe, Grush said she and her husband, John, and two children would spend a few days at her grandmother's, "then try to regroup."

Like other parts of the Southland, San Clemente had heavy rain in December and early this month. But Bill Cameron, city engineer and public works director, said it was unclear what caused the hillside to collapse into the canyon and onto Shorecliffs Golf Course below.

Because the slide was on private property, Cameron said, it will be up to property owners to make repairs that would allow them to move back into their homes.

The site of the slide is near a previous slope failure. Residents said the new slide exposed a drainage pipe, and they speculated that the city had not dealt with drainage issues that might have contributed to the earlier collapse. They noted that some nearby houses had sat condemned and empty since the earlier slide.

During recent rains, Grush said, "there was a river of water running through the golf course. It was like rapids."

Aaron Walen, a renter whose one-story house was also red-tagged, said he and a roommate had witnessed the slide "from start to finish" Thursday night. His roommate "came in the house and said, 'Do you hear that noise?' It was like pop-pop-pop."

They went into the backyard and "saw all of the bushes moving," said Walen, 39, a carpenter. "It was surreal."

The land began crumbling, slowly at first, then gained speed, Walen said. "Once it went," he added, "there were a few big dumps of patio slabs that went up and over, [tumbling] head over heels."

Residents alerted officials to the situation about 10 a.m. Friday.

"The slope failed," said Cameron, the city engineer. "Now behind the four homes there's a 25- to 50-foot vertical edge."

No one was hurt in the collapse, and no value has been placed on the damage to the houses, he said.

Joseph Arriola, whose house sits next to the four red-tagged properties, said the hillside looked as if it had been sliced off by a guillotine.

"This is my dream home, where I wanted to retire and enjoy my golden years," said Arriola, who is in his early 50s. Although engineers told him his house looked good "for now," he said, "you don't know what you don't know. This is California. If you look at the canyon, everybody has some level of erosion."

Times staff writer Sam Quinones contributed to this report.

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